Science and technology are always balancing themselves between going big and going small. We like big TV and phone screens, but we want them to come with as little interior electronics as possible. We want huge power from tiny devices, and the less techno-savvy members of the population such as myself can always take comfort in knowing that there is at least one scientist out there busting their ass trying to make formerly impossible designs a reality. Say, for instance, minuscule lithium ion batteries the size of a grain of sand. Those weren’t available back when I was listening to Tool on a Walkman, so I had to settle for the usual two relatively gigantic AA batteries.
A research team from Harvard University and the Unviversity of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign used a 3D printer to create their itsy-bitsy batteries. But instead of using the usual ink-jet printer system, the researchers had to completely redesign the ink to match their needs. The ink created for the electrode’s anode contained nanoparticles of one lithuium metal oxide compound, while the ink for the cathode contained nanoparticles from another. The concoction was then printed out using a thin nozzle, which allowed for the precise extraction of an interlaced stack of anodes and cathodes to be printed atop each other. Developed to dry rapidly, the ink set almost immediately, and completed electrodes were then packaged into eensy containers and filled with an electrolyte solution to finish the process. What’s left is a battery that can fit on the head of a pin. No room for angels on this one.
The senior author for the study, recently published in the journal Advanced Materials, was Jennifer A. Lewis, the Hansjörg Wyss Professor of Biologically Inspired Engineering at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS), as well as a Core Faculty Member of the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University. She began the work with Urbana-Champaign Assistant Professor of Materials Science and Engineering Shen Dillon while she also employed at that school.
Take your pick as to where this technology will be utilized first. The medical field, the military, personal electronics, the space race. It’s all up for grabs now. But just because they’re smaller doesn’t mean they’re more powerful.
“The electrochemical performance is comparable to commercial batteries in terms of charge and discharge rate, cycle life and energy densities,” said Dillon. “We’re just able to achieve this on a much smaller scale.” And in this case, size truly does matter. (It’s time we got rid of all those phallic batteries anyway.)